Dallas, TX –
Returning from Europe, the pilot announced that a man sitting in first class was Lt. someone on his way home from Iraq after 3 years. Everyone applauded spontaneously. I remember this watching the Jim Lehrer News Hour, when nightly, at the end of each show he announces: "And now, our roll call of those killed in Iraq. We add their names as photos are made available." Whatever I am doing, I stop, look into the screen and read their names and ages and home towns. And mourn.
How many times I think, "My God. He was just a baby." 19 or 20. I see the faces, some somber and fierce, of stoic full dress Marines. Other snapshots are candid. In those I see individual personalities; this one was a jokester, this one looks scared, that one sweet and kind. Of course I'm just projecting. But at least I'm trying to put a human face on these inhuman losses.
I think how many people have been affected by their untimely, often grisly, deaths. Significant others no one knows existed, employers in their civilian past; teachers, siblings, husbands, wives, children, mothers and fathers whose loss is too enormous to grasp. But I also feel a need to grieve that some of those soldiers lived and died having never been loved by anyone.
I think back to when Nightline read the names of the first 1,000 soldiers to have died in Iraq. I also recall how this was not run on the local affiliate but rather, a rerun of Oprah appeared. Now there are nearly three times as many more than when Nightline read those 1,000 names. We need to see these faces, read those names, and note their places they called home. To do otherwise is to treat soldier deaths like paper towels; useful, used and used up.
Today a neighbor encourages me to join members of her church by wearing red on Fridays to show "support for our troops". I likened such senseless symbolism to rubber ribbon car magnets. I drive past a home every day where their window sign says "We support our troops". Unless they have sent a loved one to war, volunteered at a V.A. hospital or done something real, verbal slogans and visual rituals - even when well intentioned - are worse than meaningless; they amount to grandstanding politicized aberrations.
It's always easier in wartime to ask questions than to find answers. In Iraq there are more questions than usual and fewer answers still. But politics aside, I ask that we actually see those faces, and read those names. Tell me something about them. Because. Each dead soldier was once upon a time a kid, grinning toothlessly for a fourth grade class photo. This is a kid who once played T-ball. Kids whose parents sat up all night praying when he or she was sick. Parents who now spend every night crying.
Who can feel proud when we salute those who survived and return, in or out of wheelchairs, while turning a blind eye to those who have died? As the widow cries to her sons in Death of a Salesman: "Attention must be paid!".
Rawlins Gilliland is a writer from Dallas.
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